FESTIVAL: Toxic Avengers and Dubya; South By Southwest Midway Report
by Marc Savlov
[While South by Southwest continues its festivities through Sunday, March 17, the winners have already been announced. Go to indieWIRE.com for a list of winners]
(indieWIRE/ 03.14.02) -- Now in its ninth year, the South By Southwest Film Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas (running March 6-17), has matured into one of the North American film festivals that filmmakers love to attend and hate to leave. Believe it: Not only is this year's event packed with some of the best films and panels (not to mention parties) in the fest's history, but to judge from the effusive praise spilling off the stages of the five major screening venues, it's entirely possible that next year's fest may find a few more filmmakers in residence in the Texas capital, already home to Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge, and Guillermo Del Toro, all of whom attended this year.
For the second year running, things started with a colossal party, big hair, and a heaping helping of self-congratulation, as Friday night's Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards were held in the cavernous Hangar 4 of the newly-created Austin Studios (formerly Robert Mueller International Airport). Created two years ago by the Austin Chronicle's Louis Black and Texas Monthly's Evan Smith, the awards show trotted out Texan film luminaries old and young, from golden-age actors Cyd Charise and Gilbert Roland, to writer William Broyles, director Terence Malick, songwriter/actor Lyle Lovett, and former Governor Anne Richards (hence the big hair). Equally revered and reviled among festival attendees, MPAA Chairman Jack Valenti even scored with the prestigious Warren Skaaren Lifetime Achievement Award, named for the late "Batman" scribe and Texas Film Commission founder.
With more than 2,300 registrants this year and six venues around town offering a total seating capacity of considerably less that number, screenings were predictably packed leaving scores of pass holders often ended up hanging around outside peering through windows. Friday's big ticket was Alexandra Pelosi's "Journeys With George," a seriocomic documentary that follows Pelosi and other journalists as they stagger down the campaign trail with then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. Already awash in buzz, Pelosi's surprisingly objective film is as much a media critique as a political one, and the director is reported in distribution talks with HBO and other bidders.
To be sure, SXSW is known for its consistently strong documentary screenings, but it's during the daylight hours when the fest's equally attractive line up of panels and workshops take center stage at the Austin Convention Center. Can't-miss panels included the Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, during which the legendary director/writer/actor/film historian blasted Peter Biskind's Hollywood tell-all "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls," calling both the book and its author a waste of time. He later noted that Robert Altman's Oscar-nominated "Gosford Park" was nothing more than a rip-off of Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game" and reminisced about Cybill Shepherd's big break in his own "The Last Picture Show."
Saturday's Paying the Rent With Film panel, moderated by Film Threat head Chris Gore, found even more sniping from the dais as actor Kent Osborne unloaded on legendary producer's rep Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, calling him a thief to the tune of $15,000 and threatening to "kick him in the balls." Dowd, commenting after the fact, seemed already aware of the rift between the "Dropping Out" actor and himself, saying that the matter had already been resolved, at least to his satisfaction. The panel, which also featured Austin doc maker Kyle Henry (who went on to nail the Best Experimental Short for "n.ew y.ork c.asino"), Danny Leiner of "Dude, Where's My Car?," and "Okie Noodling" director Bradley Beesley, offered plenty of stopgap advice for broke filmmakers and the people who love them. Dude, where's my MasterCard?
Every year SXSW has one director that everyone follows around as though he were oozing free filmstock, and this year it was Troma Films head Lloyd Kaufman, who could be found -- miniDV cam in hand -- extolling the virtues of no-budget filmmaking and bared bosoms. The subject of a film retrospective and an interview panel (by Ain't It Cool News's uber-geek Harry Knowles), Kaufman's genial self-aggrandizing and wealth of bizarrely hilarious anecdotes -- using a photo-op by presidential candidate Ralph Nader as free publicity for Troma's "Toxic Avenger" series, for instance -- made for a giddy, rapturous crowd.
Other fest highlights thus far (screenings continue through Saturday) include the Conversation with John Sayles (which began with Sayles conversing with himself while waiting for his scheduled interviewer to arrive, no less), the Acting in Film panel, featuring Dennis Hopper, Jeffrey Tambor, Cheech Marin, and Turk Pipkin, and several sellout screenings of "Hell House," the new doc from "Plutonium Circus" director (and previous festival winner) George Ratliff. Like the guy in front of me in line for Ethan Hawke's "Chelsea Walls" screening said: "Indie filmmaking isn't dead, man -- it's just living in Austin these days." Amen to that.